Amna’s grandfather recalls a part of Qatar’s history that we are now as Qataris very proud of. Qatar’s history involved two narratives; a narrative of the sea and a narrative of the desert. To know our history, we need to learn how both narratives merged into a totally new imagined narrative of the past. To revive the past and our pride in it, we need to record it as it happened with all its glory and severity. Amna writes down her father’s native and past experience in English, teaching both Arabic and English readers about an era that doesn’t exist anymore. She skillfully inserts old terms and words as loan word for both readers- those who haven’t lived through that period and those who are totally alien to the Qatari culture.
“Amna with your right hand” my mom whispers while I hand my grandfather a small cup of Arabic coffee. He takes it and starts sipping slowly while staring at my wrist with great focus. He is unusually silent. “Do you like my watch Ybaa- father? It’s one of my mom’s very old jewelry, but pearls are very fashionable these days” I joke. He finishes his coffee and shakes the cup twice indicating that he doesn’t want anymore. His black sparkling eyes follow my hand as I take the cup. His eyebrows cross and his eyes tighten like he’s trying to figure out a puzzle. Suddenly, he says “Gmasha!” I laugh and reply “Ybaa I’m Amna not Gmasha!” everyone in the room laughs at my comment except my grandfather.
He points to my watch and says “those pearls are called Gmash. They are medium sized and very valuable. Danah… Hessah… Hasbah… Yakkah… Mozah… Badlam… Jmanah… Fraidah are also names of pearls we used to find,” he tells me and sighs with no traces of a smile. “Why the sadness in your tone Ybaa?” I ask confused. “No my dear … I’m not sad but the pearls took me back to the days” he closes his eyes and inhales heavily “The Days of Enaad”.
“I was only eleven years old when my uncle Rashid bin Khalifa bin Hetmi, the Nokhitha (the captain and often the owner of the ship) of Enaad decided to take me on my first pearling trip. Back then; Enaad was one of the biggest and fastest Sinbooks (traditional Gulf wooden ship) in the whole Gulf region. Youm Rkabah (trip day) was the happiest day of my life. I was swollen by pride. All my friends and cousins were jealous because, I was about to leave on a two to four-month pearling trip on the great Enaad. I was about to sail with the men, while they stay on shore with the kids and women. On that morning, we all walked to the shore, women children and elders. The sun was rising from elmatla’a (East) while the sailors continued loading Enaad with cargo. The wind was blowing from elyaah (North) bringing with it a slight smell of fish and seawater on the perfect summer day for our trip. And there…” my grandfather points to the front, “was Enaad. The most beautiful and glorious Sinbook I ever saw. Everyone sailed on it came back a hero.”
“Ybaa you were only eleven! What were you thinking going onto that trip?” I interrupt.
“Ya ybaa it was a great honor. I was uncle Rashid’s tabaab (young boys, often related to one of the crewmembers); I used to help in getting the sailors water when they got thirsty, drying their clothes whenever it got wet, cleaning their dishes after they ate and even sweeping the ship sometimes. There were about 80 sailors onboard. There was the Nokhitha, uncle Rashid. Everyone feared him, but at the same time they all respected him. He was very tough with the sailors. Each and every order he gave had to be obeyed without any discussions. He was very precise and punctual. Everything had to go according to plan. The person with the most power after the Nokhitha was the Mejdemi (captain’s assistant), and he was the chief of the sailors. Not only was he responsible for the sailors on the ship, but he was also responsible for supplying the ship with food, water and diving supplies before it sailed. And of course there were the Ghaiss (divers)…”
I interrupt excitedly: “They are the ones that jump off the ship collecting oysters from the bottom of the sea, right?”
“Yes, they are, my dear. Those divers have the most difficult and dangerous job on the sinbook. When the Nokhitha decides that we have reached the perfect Hair (pearling location), he asks them to dive in and start collecting. Once in the water, the divers clip their noses with the Ftaam (a nose peg made of turtle shell). Some of them used to put some wax inside their ears to protect their hearing as well. The divers used to hold on to two ropes hung from the ship. One used to loop around one of their ankles with very heavy stones attached to it, to help them sink quickly to the seabed. The other one had the Dyeen (net basket attached). The divers used to hold it while they sunk down to the seabed. Once they reach the bottom, they would hang the Dyeen around their necks and swim along collecting as many oysters as they could and placing them into the basket. Back on the ship, there were the Saib (pullers), strong men with strong powerful shoulders. They were responsible for pulling the oyster basket as well the divers back to the surface.”
“What if they don’t pull them back? How can the divers trust them? I wouldn’t!” I ask my grandfather.
My grandfather laughs and continues “they had to… they had to trust them. Saibs were usually older men with more experience because a diver’s life depended on them, you know! Whenever the diver thought that he couldn’t hold his breath any longer, he would release his ankle from the weight attached and then he would pull the Dyeen rope as signal that he wants to be pulled back up. In the summer, they could stay for five to eight minutes under the water, but in the winter they could not stay for more than three minutes.” My grandfather points to my watch and says “and most of the sailors participate in opening the oysters to find the pearls. It was the most joyful activity onboard. They would pile up the oysters on deck and sit down each with a Mflaga (knife) to open them. It’s amazing how much joy and pride this little round thing brought to us. Some types of pearls might be attached to their shells. Not anyone could take them out; he had to be an expert. They used to call him the Fallag (expert in opening the oysters and getting out the pearls). Around the pile used to stand four Natoors (guards) watching…”
“Why were they watching? Did anyone ever steel?” I interrupt again.
My grandfather laughs: “Actually some of them did try to steel. If you found a Dana worth 30 thousand Rubyas (currency) wouldn’t you be tempted to take it? I remember one time; one of the Natoors came to the Nokhitha and told him that one of the Fallags hid a pearl. The Nokhitha went to the Fallag and asked him to tell the truth and confess. The Fallag didn’t and he kept lying. The Nokhitha took one of the ships halyards, which was attached to its uppermost point (the head), and tied it around the Fallag’s ankle. He then ordered the sailors to pull the rope, raising the Fallag and hanging him upside down in the air. All the sailors laughed and made fun of him. The Nokhitha asked him again to confess, but he didn’t. He asked the sailors to pull the rope again, raising him higher. Although everyone else was laughing at him, this was not a joke to the Nokhitha. He wanted to teach him and the other sailors a lesson. He wanted to show the sailors that nobody gets away with stealing and that whatever treasures we found should be shared fairly according to effort. The Nokhitha asked one of the sailors to look for the pearl in the Fallag’s stuff and he found it, the stolen pearl. The Fallag immediately confessed and apologized but the Nokhitha decided that he was not qualified for this job anymore as he lost the crew’s trust.”
My grandfather pauses and points to the Arabic coffee pot on the table. I realize that he wants more: “oh! Inshallah” (If God wills). I pour some coffee into his small cup and hand it to him. He blows into his cup once and takes two fast sips. He closes his eyes and moves his body slowly left and right with the cup in his right hand and sings “Hollow YaAllah.. Hollow YaAllah Alhaadi.. Aah Tahdeena..” He opens his eyes and says: “we used to sing a lot onboard with the Naham (professional singer).” I laugh and say: “He was the lead singer of the band?” My grandfather replies: “Yes his main job onboard was to sing and lift the sailors’ spirits. He used drums, clay pots and even seashells as musical instruments. Aaaa Yabaa! He used to sing the most beautiful mwaweel (hymning poetry showing the singer’s vocal skills) and songs. The crew used to sing after him, clap their hands and even tap their feet on the wooden deck. We had a song for every action and event. It was amazing how those songs kept us going and motivated everyone on the ship to keep working under the heat and in the middle of the sea…”
My grandfather talks, while I think to my self: “Was singing their interpretation of having fun? How was that fun? They could just stay onshore and sing… Was the risk worth it?” My grandfather stops talking and looks at me. He starts: “Amna I know what you’re thinking?” I look at him with confusion and smile without saying anything. He continues: “Yes it was tiring, hard and very … very risky. The sea was dangerous. We didn’t have accurate weather forecast like today. We depended on our own predictions and guesses, so we didn’t know if it would be stormy or windy the next day. However, it was all worth it back then. We became men. Real men. We never thought about how much money we made. We just wanted to provide our families with the best lives we could offer. It was all for our mothers, fathers, wives and children. We were never defined by how much money we had in our pockets, rather by how loyal, trusted, devoted, and hardworking we were.” He stops and looks at my watch. He smiles, says: “Now if they knew the pearls would end up on a kid’s wrist, I’m sure they would’ve thought of something else to do” and laughs hysterically along with everyone in the room.
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